I never knew I was an angry person. Then I had kids. Even people who know me well are incredulous when I describe this anger that wells up in me. When I reread in this week’s parashah the well-worn story of Moses angrily striking the rock to produce water, I appreciate him as a flawed parent of a burgeoning people who, in a moment of frustration, makes a mistake that costs him dearly.
At this point in the Exodus narrative, the now-free Israelites complain bitterly, and upon hearing their protest “There is not even water to drink,” God instructs Moses and Aaron to take their rod and order a rock to bring forth water.
Moses tells the gathered, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” and infamously strikes the rock not once but twice. For this he is barred from entering the Promised Land he worked so tirelessly to reach.
The commentators are disappointed that Moses is derailed by what seems a Divine whim. Many find that his guilt must lie not in the striking of the rock but with his promise of water from the rock — as if it is his miracle to perform! By this point, perhaps he should have known that this God demands proper credit where credit is due. Why in this moment does he slip up, confusing the source of deliverance, either deliberately or accidentally?
Moses gets it wrong because he cracks. Like every parent at some moment or another, he hears his children whining … again. He has put his life on the line for them, trusted them and even defended them when they were barely deserving. And now they need something else? Adding insult to injury, they blame him for their misery.
Whether it was the act of striking or its introduction that engendered the punishment is immaterial. When we are angry, we lash out; we don’t think logically. We hear words come out of our mouths we never would have imagined. It is from that well of anger that Moses mocks the children of Israel and utters the words that will bring his own life to an end.
The phrase “when anger strikes” can be taken literally here; when we flare up, it feels like the rage is something outside of ourselves, taking on the capability of striking as if by its own agency.
Moses had a history of anger-management issues, from the striking down of an Egyptian taskmaster to the breaking of the tablets, plus more minor flare-ups throughout the wanderings in the desert.
Mussar Institute founder Alan Morinis writes, “Anger is a potent inner force that everyone experiences in themselves, often followed by regret. Yet there is a positive aspect to anger — it is a signal that something you care about is endangered or wronged.” Indeed, Moses’ outbursts may have revealed deep-seated internal distresses.
And for each bout of fury, I imagine Moses lived with deep remorse. Guilt or regret can fuel a change in behavior when we realize that the feelings we are going to have to live with, and the scene we will endlessly replay in our minds, were not worth the outburst.
In one moment, Moses blew it. It is as if all of the good he did could not counteract this error. Unfair? Perhaps. But it is true that a few regretful moments can erase so much of the good we are doing in the world — through leadership, partnerships or parenting. “When a prophet loses his temper, his gift of prophecy abandons him” (Babylonian Talmud, Pes. 66b).
In her new book “Nurture the Wow,” Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes of parents having “ample opportunities to see our failings. All we need to do, probably, is to pay attention to how we are with our children … and we’ll get a lot of telling information. When are we attentive? When are we dismissive? … When do we run out of patience, and what does that look like? Children are, among other things, powerful little mirrors, and not all of what they reflect back to us about who and how we are is necessarily comfortable.”
I imagine Moses recognized more flaws in himself on his journey with this nascent people than he cared to see. And in this final test, God’s compassion had run out. Luckily for us, we probably have another shot.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area and editor of “Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives.” She can be reached at email@example.com.